Penelope Voyages: Women and Travel in the British Literary Tradition

By Karen R. Lawrence | Go to book overview

4
Woolf's Voyages Out: The Voyage Out and Orlando

Near the beginning of The Voyage Out, Virginia Woolf's first novel and a travel story, we find a description of the ship, the Euphrosyne, that is transporting a group of English tourists to South America.

But, on the other hand, an immense dignity had descended upon her;
she was an inhabitant of the great world, which has so few inhabitants,
travelling all day across an empty universe, with veils drawn before her
and behind. She was more lonely than the caravan crossing the desert;
she was infinitely more mysterious, moving by her own power and sus
tained by her own resources. The sea might give her death or some
unexampled joy, and none would know of it. She was a bride going forth
to her husband, a virgin unknown of men; in her vigour and purity
she might be likened to all beautiful things, worshipped and felt as a
symbol. (32)

This is a prose passage (and the term itself reminds us how narratology depends on the trope of travel) deliberately freighted with significance, the ship, like the novel's allegorical title, an overloaded vessel of meaning. As virgin bride, the ship figures the launching of the narrative. Epithalamic suspense marks the journey of this first novel, as well as that of Woolf's woman traveler, the cliché of the "maiden voyage" doubly revived. The Euphrosyne (the name refers to one of the three Graces) figures the trajectory of the female traveler, herself viewed as a symbol of mystery, beauty, and power. From the beginning of the novel, the topos of the journey is explicitly gendered.

-154-

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